Editor’s Notes: Obama’s presidential vision for Israel

By David Horovitz July 25, 2008

Firmly diplomatic on Iran, upbeat about Syria and distinctly critical of the settlement enterprise, the Democratic front-runner speaks exclusively to ‘The Jerusalem Post’

Two months ago in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush, coming to the end of a two-term presidency and presumably as expert on Israeli-Palestinian policy as he is ever going to be, was accompanied by a team of no fewer than five advisers and spokespeople during a 40-minute interview with this writer and three other Israeli journalists.

In March, on his whirlwind visit to Israel, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, one of whose primary strengths is said to be his intimate grasp of foreign affairs, chose to bring along Sen. Joe Lieberman to the interview our diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and I conducted with him, looked to Lieberman several times for reassurance on his answers and seemed a little flummoxed by a question relating to the nuances of settlement construction.

On Wednesday evening, toward the end of his packed one-day visit here, Barack Obama, the Democratic senator who is leading the race for the White House and who lacks long years of foreign policy involvement, spoke to The Jerusalem Post with only a single aide in his King David Hotel room, and that aide’s sole contribution to the conversation was to suggest that the candidate and I switch seats so that our photographer would get better lighting for his pictures.

Several of Obama’s Middle East advisers – including former Clinton special envoy Dennis Ross and ex-ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer – were hovering in the vicinity. But Obama, who was making only his second visit to Israel, knew precisely what he wanted to say about the most intricate issues confronting and concerning Israel, and expressed himself clearly, even stridently on key subjects.

There is a limit to what can be gauged of a politician’s views as expressed in a relatively short interview at the height of an election campaign. But Obama, who chose to give the Post one of the only two formal sit-down interviews he conducted during his visit, was clearly conveying a carefully formulated message – and it was striking in several areas.

He sought to sound resolute on thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, while insisting on the need to ‘exhaust every avenue’ before the military option. He was optimistic on the prospects of potential Syrian moderation. He was succinct and blunt on Jerusalem – and distinctly different from the ‘poor phrasing’ of his ‘Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided’ comments during his address to AIPAC’s policy conference last month. And most notably, he was explicit and unsympathetic on the matter of West Bank settlement.

Speaking to the Post six months and a political lifetime ago in January, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that the unique advantage of trying to reach an accord with the Palestinians during the Bush administration stemmed from the fact that while even Israel’s best friends, when they envision the permanent dimensions of our country, think of Israel ‘in terms of the ’67 borders,’ Bush ‘has already said ’67-plus.’ He’s the only president who has ever said that… And that’s an amazing achievement for Israel.’

In the Knesset on Monday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a self-declared lifelong friend of Israel, underlined the point by setting out the ‘fundamentals’ of a final-status accord involving ‘a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.’

And on Wednesday evening, Obama answered my question about whether Israel has a right to try and maintain a presence in the West Bank, for security, religious, historic or other reasons, with a vigor and detail that also seemed to confirm Olmert’s assessment of where conventional friendly wisdom stands and that expanded significantly on his brief settlement remarks in the AIPAC speech.

The 46-year-old senator, who must have been exhausted after a day’s shuttling between Yad Vashem, Beit Hanassi, Ramallah and Sderot, with a prime ministerial dinner still ahead of him and Europe beckoning the next day, was personable and gracious, nonetheless, calling out to Post photographer Ariel Jerozolimski and me that he was just going to put his tie on and then striding down the corridor to greet us.

He spoke softly and deliberately, and though the interview was brief and there was, of course, much more to ask the front-runner in the race to lead the free world, his answers, transcribed here in full, offer considerable insight into his would-be presidential attitude to Israel and the region… and considerable food for thought.

Can you assure the people of Israel, and beyond, that as president you will prevent Iran attaining nuclear weapons?

What I can do is assure that I will do everything in my power as president to prevent Iran attaining nuclear weapons. And I think that begins with engaging in tough, direct talks with Iran, sending a clear message to Iran that they shouldn’t wait for the next administration but should start engaging in the P5 process [involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council] that’s taking place right now, and elevating this to the top of our national security priorities, so that we are mobilizing the entire international community, including Russia and China, on this issue.

One of the failures, I think, of our approach in the past has been to use a lot of strong rhetoric but not follow through with the kinds of both carrots and sticks that might change the calculus of the Iranian regime. But I have also said that I would not take any options off the table, including military.

How do you address the concern that the Iranians, even in the ‘tough negotiations’ that you envisage, will play you for time while moving towards a nuclear capability? Ahmadinejad said today, ‘We’re not pulling back… not one iota.’ They are very adamant.

I think it is important in mobilizing the international community to make clear that this is not just a game that we’re playing, but this is of the utmost seriousness – to send messages to Russia and China that in our bilateral relationships this is a top priority, not just a secondary priority. And one of my strong beliefs is that, to the extent that we are showing a willingness to negotiate but are very clear and direct in our goals, and are displaying a sense of urgency – that if the Iranians fail to respond, we’ve stripped away whatever excuses they may have, [and] whatever rationales may exist in the international community for not ratcheting up sanctions and taking serious action.

There’d be a very limited time for that kind of approach?

Time is of the essence in this situation.

You told AIPAC that the Israeli strike on Syria last year was ‘entirely justified to end that threat.’ Would you support an Israeli strike at Iranian facilities in the coming months if Israel felt it had no choice but to act?

My goal is to avoid being confronted with that hypothetical. I’ve said in the past and I will repeat that Israelis, and Israelis alone have to make decisions about their own security. But the grave consequences of either doing nothing or initiating a potential war with Iran are such that we want to do everything we can, to exhaust every avenue to avoid that option.

You’ve said on this trip that you want to work for an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation from the minute you’re sworn in, so let me ask you about the thesis that there is no prospect of Palestinian moderation prevailing and enabling a peace process to really move forward until Iran’s nuclear drive has been thwarted – that so long as the Teheran-backed extremists of Hamas and so on feel that they are in the ascendant, the moderates can’t prevail and that the whole region is now in this kind of holding mode.

I think there is no doubt that there is a connection between Iran’s strengthening over the last couple of years, partly because some strategic errors have been made on the part of the West. And [the same goes for] the increasing boldness of Hizbullah and Hamas. But I don’t think that’s the only factor and criterion in the lack of progress.

Hamas’s victory in the [Palestinian Authority] election can partly be traced to a sense of frustration among the Palestinian people over how Fatah, over a relatively lengthy period of time, had failed to deliver basic services. I get a strong impression that [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Prime Minister Salaam] Fayad are doing everything they can to address some of those systemic failures by the Palestinian Authority. The failures of Hamas in Gaza to deliver an improved quality of life for their people give pause to the Palestinians to think that pursuing that approach automatically assures greater benefits.

You know, look, I arrive at this with no illusions as to the difficulty in terms of what is required. But I think it’s important for us to keep working at it, frankly, because Israel’s security and peace in the region depend on it.

There’s been some back and forth on your position on Jerusalem. So as editor of The Jerusalem Post, I need to ask you: Do you support Israel’s current claim to sovereignty throughout the city, or should Jerusalem also come to constitute the capital of a Palestinian state?

I believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. But I think that how Israel and the Palestinians resolve this issue is a final-status issue. It needs to be left up to the two parties.

Tell me about Syria: Israel is now in indirect talks with Syria. Would you as president directly re-engage with Damascus even if it hadn’t changed its position on hosting terror groups and so on?

My general view is that initiating direct contacts between the United States and other countries is a generally smart practice – if nothing else just to get better intelligence on what they are thinking, on what their approaches are, what their calculations are, what their interests are. I think that based on conversations I’ve had here in Israel as well as conversations with leaders elsewhere in the region, there is the possibility at least that the Syrian government genuinely seeks to break out of the isolation. What price they are willing to pay to break out of that isolation, is an unanswered question. It’s worth exploring.

And if in fact there are some genuine signals that Syria is willing to drive out terrorists in their midst, shut down the arms flow into Lebanon, or to otherwise engage in more responsible behavior, I think it could be a shift in the region that would be extremely advantageous. And the United States should partner with Israel as well as moderate forces in the Palestinian community to pursue that.

The American position has been blanketly opposed to settlement construction. Do you think Israel has a right to try and maintain a presence in the West Bank – for security, religious, historic or other reasons?

I think that Israel should abide by previous agreements and commitments that have been made, and aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements that have been made previously.

Israel’s security concerns, I think, have to be taken into account, via negotiation. I think the parties in previous discussions have stated that settlement construction doesn’t necessarily contribute to that enhanced security. I think there are those who would argue that the more settlements there are, the more Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel’s long-term security.

Ultimately, though, these are part of the discussions that have to take place between the parties. But I think that, based on what’s previously been said, for Israel to make sure that it is aligned with those previous statements is going to be helpful to the process.

The current Israeli prime minister told me in an interview a few months ago that the great advantage of the Bush administration on that issue was that they looked at Israel on the basis of ’67-plus’ – that their starting point was that maybe Israel can expect or deserve support for a slightly larger sovereign presence than the pre-1967 Israel. Do you think of Israel in its final-status incarnation on the basis of ’67-plus’?

Look, I think that both sides on this equation are going to have to make some calculations. Israel may seek ’67-plus’ and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.

The Palestinians are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going to fight for every inch of that ’67 border or, given the fact that 40 years have now passed, and new realities have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that may not perfectly align with the ’67 boundaries?

My sense is that both sides recognize that there’s going to have to be some give. The question from my perspective is can the parties move beyond a rigid, formulaic or ideological approach and take a practical approach that looks at the larger picture and says, ‘What’s going to be the best way for us to achieve security and peace?’

How should the free world tackle the threat of Islamic extremism, the ‘death cult’ ideology that holds that the finest thing you can do for your god is kill and be killed?

There are a number of different aspects. Our first approach has to be to capture or kill those who are so steeped in that ideology that we’re not going to convert them. Bin-Laden is not going to change his mind suddenly. So we have to be very aggressive in simply rolling up those terrorist networks that have been set up and that adhere to those views.

I would argue that the number of Muslims who both embrace and act on that ideology is relatively low. There’s then a larger circle, there’s a broader part of the Muslim world that is fundamentalist, but is not wedded to violence. The key in dealing with that aspect of Islam is to help them reconcile modernity to their faith. A lot of times their gripe is not with the West per se, but with the forces of modern life and globalization that is disruptive to their views of what their faith means.

And I think that lifting up models of countries that have found accommodation between Islam and a modern economy, globalization, diversity of cultures…

Countries such as?

A country like Jordan has gone a long way in moving in that direction. A country like Indonesia, which I lived in as a child for four years, has a strong tradition of tolerance of diversity. And although there was a certain period of time when a fundamentalist strain of terrorism infected the culture, that’s not its core.

A final aspect of this is recognizing that the population explosion of uneducated young men and women who are impoverished is always dangerous in any society. And that helps fuel and feed Islamic radicalism, even if there is not a direct correlation.

I recognize that many of the perpetrators of terrorist acts aren’t poor; often times [they] come from middle class or even upper class families. [But] there’s no doubt that the tolerance or the acceptance of extremism among the broader population is often fuelled by frustration and a sense of no prospects for the future.

To the extent that we can work with countries like Egypt, or countries like Jordan, to assure that the youth that are coming up have avenues that allow them to prosper… We’re not going to end this, to eliminate terrorism entirely. There’s always going to have to be a part of our strategy that involves force. But I think that we can shrink the appeal of that ideology in a way that makes an enormous difference.

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